Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Good-bye to all that

"The George Clooney of conductors" does his stuff.

When a love affair ends, well, at least it's nice if it ends with such sweet sorrow as was evident at Handel and Haydn's farewell to Grant Llewellyn last weekend. The society has announced that under new Artistic Director Harry Christophers, it won't be tiptoeing into the late nineteenth century as was its wont under Llewellyn (who served as the group's A.D., then Principal Guest Conductor, for the past eight years). But this concert only made you think, "More's the pity!" at least with this particular conductor at the helm.

There's of course an argument for limiting the period orchestra to the rough boundary of Beethoven - indeed, this concert actually made that argument on occasion. On the other hand, it's also clear the Romantic period is a special passion for Llewellyn, and his musical/rhetorical skills are uniquely suited to it. Hence the intriguing, exciting symphonic beast that was last weekend's concert, which began with a postmodern nod to Handel (from contemporary composer Tom Vignieri), then dove right into the Romantics, with the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto and then Brahms's First Symphony.

I felt the opening piece, Vignieri's Fanfare of Voices (the musical material of which was derived from Handel's initials) was sweet but unremarkable - although I'm never one for these ardently academic tributes to the great. Plus Vignieri made the mistake of pushing his natural horns up into high trills; historically accurate, I'm sure, but these always come off as muddy squawks to the modern ear (suddenly you remember why, in fact, valves and other technical improvements were invented).

But any mental grumbles vanished with the Mendelssohn, which was led by the rising virtuoso Ilya Gringolts (at left), an Itzhak Perlman protégé who held the crowd in his lightly-fingered grip from the piece's very first notes. The Globe's Jeremy Eichler sniffed at the performance, but given how deeply Eichler is in the tank for the BSO, this should be taken with a shaker-full of salt. It's true that Gringolts's vibrato was basically modern - seemingly Eichler's main point against him - but his playing was hardly vibrato-heavy; instead it was lightly pointed, with vibrato in key passages (that is, roughly the Baroque model, so in a way you could say Gringolts personified the crossover stance of the entire concert). At any rate, the performance was certainly thrilling; this virtuoso's control was impeccable - despite the fact that Mendelssohn keeps almost the entire piece near the top of the instrument's range - and was only matched by his speed and subtlety.

The Brahms was equally exciting, thanks to this conductor's always-dynamic phrasing. Llewellyn's passionate articulation often has a subtle consonance with human elocution: for him, orchestral playing is a kind of grand, extrapolated speech; he doesn't serve you the music, the way Levine does; instead (somewhat in the mode of Benjamin Zander) he acts as an orator-by-proxy for the absent composer. It's true that after a rousing first movement, the orchestra lost some focus in the second, and later on the natural horns tipped the balance a little too far in their direction. But the fourth movement was a model of steadily mounting intensity; you could almost feel Brahms's relief at meeting (or nearly meeting) Beethoven's standard, and his subsequent blast of triumph.

In a way, this was Llewellyn's triumph, too; the affection from the cheering hall at the performance's conclusion was palpable. Not only his musicianship but his charisma, it's true, was central to that feeling - not for nothing does a friend of mine sigh and call him "the George Clooney of conductors"! But then charisma certainly has its proper place in musical performance. During a break after the opening fanfare, when the entire stage had to be re-configured, Llewellyn came out alone, mike in hand, to entertain the crowd, and within minutes had all of Symphony Hall singing the "devil's interval" (F-G-B natural) along with him. It's hard to imagine any other local conductor pulling that off with quite the same level of aplomb, and it's that warm self-confidence that I think we'll miss the most.

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